Francoise doesn't have many friends. She never has. That girlfriend who she could spill her secrets to, the one who would sit on her bed and whisper about cute boys and mean teachers?
She never had one.
Life, it seems, got in the way.
Francoise dropped out of school as a child; she decided she wasn't cut out for it. And from then on, her childhood, if you could call it that, was spent on the sides of Rwanda's cool green hills, turning the soil and pulling weeds. Francoise, like a lot of rural Rwandans, measures distance in hills. That's where she met her husband, on a hill not far from her own. She married as a teenager, against her wishes.
With this revelation, Francoise slips back into her past. You can hear the hesitation in her voice, and specifics seem to evaporate. They are replaced by her shy smile and downcast eyes. They tell you not to pry.
'There Wasn't Another Way'
After the marriage, this gentle woman, who smiles at her children when they aren't looking, worked like a slave. "This wasn't a happy time," she says. "I wasn't at ease, but there wasn't another way."
She went from hoeing potato fields to hauling boulders. She worked as a mason for a while, then as a hired hand on farms. This was between the pregnancies, the first one at 19. She had a child almost every year for the next six years.
When you ask about her parents, her Mona Lisa smile disappears.
"People came and killed my father," she says. "I don't know who. I was on another hill at the time. I don't know what happened."
It's been more than a decade since he died, but the memory of his death is still raw. With the thought, Francoise starts to weep.
All of this—the genocide, the dead family members, the reluctant marriage—eats away at a woman. And Francoise kept it bottled up. It hides below her placid exterior, beneath that demure smile.
That is until the SILC group. Until she met Yvonne.
SILC stands for Savings and Internal Lending Communities. Catholic Relief Services helps set up SILC groups for Rwandans who don't have access to banks. SILC brings them together to learn to save money. Francoise heard about them at church. Then a local chapter showed up one day in her neighborhood.
In the groups, money is contributed to a fund and members can access modest loans. The groups are small, usually less than 30 people, and the members decide who joins. Because most of the members are from the same village or community, there is social pressure to repay the loan on time. The group members also contribute to a social fund, which helps members when unexpected needs for cash arise, usually for medical emergencies or funerals.
Making Ends Meet
At today's meeting, the group sat in a gazebo under some banana trees. Most of the loans given out were between $6 and $12, and most of it went to fruit sellers. Francoise took out a loan for $30.
She sells odds and ends in a shack made from scraps of plywood and rusty zinc sheeting. But profits are slim, pennies really, on what she sells. The $30 will go to stock up on gum and peanuts and matches for her little shop.
With six kids at home—two boys and four girls—ranging in age from 20 to 7 years old, and two nephews and a niece who lost their parents, Francoise has a hard time making ends meet. She says the loans help. But on a good day she only makes $4, and with all those school fees to pay and all those mouths to feed, that doesn't go very far. Still, the savings group is a relief, something to fall back on when times get bad.
But it's not really the loans that Francoise likes about the savings group.
Yvonne and Francoise had been neighbors for quite some time. Beyond the usual head nod and mumbled pleasantries, they didn't pay much attention to one another.
"We were just neighbors," says Yvonne. "We had no deep harmony between us."
But then Yvonne's brother fell seriously ill, just one of many who fell mysteriously sick at a wedding.
Yvonne rushed to the hospital. Most of the people had recovered, but Yvonne's brother wasn't among them. He didn't make it.
"I was out of my mind. I lost control," Yvonne says. "I was running around the hospital not understanding what happened."
Guess who showed up at the hospital?
"It was amazing," says Yvonne. "[Francoise] was the first person who came to comfort us."
A Shoulder to Lean On
Francoise has a simple reason why she did it: Love. "I just felt I should comfort her," she says. "I know how painful a death in the family is."
"I really like to comfort people in need," Francoise continues. "I like to visit patients in the hospital and other people who are going through hard times."
She says it's her calling; it's in her blood.
"My parents," she says, "were very loving people."
Then she stops. That smile comes out again. And so does the Kleenex. She stops talking. Her eyes glisten.
But Yvonne knows what to do for her friend. Not missing a beat, she fills in the awkward silence.
"Our friendship developed after that," she says, looking over at Francoise, who's smiling at her.
That's a side effect of the savings groups: they strengthen communities through friendships. Women chat with one another about their kids, their jobs, their husbands. It's a release from the daily grind. All the stress that is simmering inside is released on the walk home after the savings group.
Now Yvonne is a frequent visitor at Francoise's house. She comes to visit the kids Francoise adopted. They talk about life. And the rougher parts of it. Francoise knows that their friendship has reached the place where it's comfortable asking Yvonne the question she can't ask others.
"School fees are really a trial for me," says Francoise. "Each time students are about to go back to school, Yvonne has always been there to comfort me and encourage me." She's also been there to pay for their fees when Francoise can't.
For Francoise, there's comfort in knowing Yvonne is there. She doesn't gossip and divulge every detail of her life. There are no loose-lipped rumors about the neighbors flying between these two. It's low-key conversation, spoken at barely above a whisper. It's a nice feeling for Francoise. The stress of life is eased when Yvonne is around.
Sometimes, long comfortable silences find their way into conversations.
But that's okay. After almost four decades without someone like Yvonne, even these feel good.
"She's my number one friend," says Yvonne.
Lane Hartill is the western and central Africa regional information officer for Catholic Relief Services. He is based in Dakar, Senegal.